“DRESS is a form of visual art, a creation of images with the visible self as its medium,” wrote art and clothing historian Anne Hollander in her book, Seeing Through Clothes. “People dress and observe other dressed people with a set of pictures in mind — pictures in a particular style.” A recent talk by Dr. Stephanie Coo under the Icomos Philippines (International Council on Monuments and Sites) Lighter Side Talks series called “Clothing and Spaces” planned to highlight the dynamics of 19th century clothing in the Philippines, but managed to say so much more, namely, on the matter of clothing itself.
Ms. Coo is a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at the Departmento de Historia del Arte at the Universidad de Granada in Spain. She holds a PhD in History from Universite Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, a Master of Arts in History, and Bachelor of Science degrees from the Ateneo de Manila, where she served as Assistant Professor. She is the author of Clothing the Colony: Nineteenth Century Philippine Sartorial Culture (1820-1896). The talk was co-organized by Intramuros Administration, and was supported by the Universidad de Granada, Athenea3i, the European Commission, and the Oficina de Proyectos Internacionales, with the assistance of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda and Ambassador Ed de Vega.
Ms. Coo began the discussion by highlighting the several factors that determine what a person wears in context of time and space: there is of course the time of the activity (rising for breakfast? lounging at home?) but also the space in which it will occur (indoor? outdoor?). There’s also consideration on the people who will be around (the help? just family? someone to impress?). Factors of class are also highlighted: there will be of course the availability of material, but also the make and manufacture of the clothes, as well as its utility.
For example, Ms. Coo points to the tapis (an overskirt used over the gentlewoman’s garb of choice, the traje de mestiza). Apparently, the Filipino upper-class woman would come to stop wearing the garment due to its association with the homely apron. Vendors in the street would come to wear the tapis for utilitarian purposes: to wipe sweat, for example. The panuelo (a fichu used in the same traje de mestiza) would also find itself used in another way by the lower classes: again to wipe sweat, because theirs would be of less fine material (absorbent cotton) as opposed to the piña of their masters.
The talk also made a comment on piña. Ms. Coo said that the use of the pineapple fiber to make fabric (one still used today in formal wear) points to the end of the galleon trade in the earlier part of the 19th century. The Spanish colonial government diverted attention to develop cash crops such as the previously expensive pineapple. The production of cash crops led to the creation of a new elite, who then had enough money to send their children to Europe to be educated. “It facilitated mobility, and the diffusion of common taste.”
Ms. Coo also points to the myth that the barong tagalog, a translucent shirt that was the garment of polite Filipino men, was an imposition by the colonial government. The myth goes that the government imposed the shirt on Filipinos so they could see if they were hiding anything, such as weapons. “It is not true. As of now, I have not seen any documents to support that.”
The talk also showed various interesting artifacts that point to the interaction between the Philippines and the rest of the world. For example, she showed off a baptismal gown created for Alfonso XIII of Spain. The lace bore the crest of the House of Bourbon, and was ordered by Pope Pius X — from the Philippines.
Ms. Coo said, “Clothes are records of lifestyles, also of materials, of threads, embroidery, patterns, textiles, quality, etc. It has layers of meaning, and they reflect a certain time, a certain lifestyle.” For example, clothing of the time reflected modesty: in settings, for example, where a woman might get wet, such as in the banks of a river in the country, clothing tended to be darker colored. As well, she pointed to an improving skill set in needlework to a movement in fashion. “Proportionately, the sleeves also expanded. They started to wear their art.”
In a way, the talk also highlighted the importance of the study of clothes: “Clothing our bodies is a form of managing our ideas as we move through different space-time contexts.”
“They said that clothes are a skin’s skin. The idea of social skin is when you interact with other people, there’s a face that you present; an image,” she said. “The beauty of this subject is that anyone is dressed. Even if you’re not dressed in an image, people wonder: what’s the narrative; the story here?” — Joseph L. Garcia